July 14, 2010

5 Questions with Someone Interesting: Charles Emmerson

Following on yesterday’s review of his recent book, The Future History of the Arctic, let’s now turn to a chat with Charles Emmerson. Alex was great enough track him down for me, and he was gracious enough to spend some time speaking to us from London on a recent Friday afternoon. We explore issues such as differing views on climate change among Arctic countries, the surprises we’ve found in sea floor mapping and exploration, and whether the Gulf crisis or recession have changed how security types should view the Arctic. Enjoy his insights, read this book, and comment as you please! ~Christine

Christine Parthemore: Why the Arctic?

Charles Emmerson: There are two main reasons. The first reason is a long-standing interest in the Arctic – since childhood – which is a good place to start if you want to write a book. I grew up with a bedroom which had a huge map of the world on one wall – I suppose you could say it was a slightly megalomaniac bedroom in which to grow up – with Greenland right in the middle. In effect, I woke up every morning looking at the Arctic. If you do that for the formative ten years of your life, it’s not too surprising you’ll develop an interest in the place. And of course there were the name: Disko Bay, Thule and Godthåb – at that time, now the place is called Nuuk – and Murmansk. So that’s part of my childhood interest – in effect, maps. The other part of it is that, when I was probably about six or so, I read an article in National Geographic about Spitsbergen. I think it was actually in the August 1978 edition, though I must have read the article sometime in the early 1980s. I read the article and was really captivated it by it – so much so that recently I sent a copy of my book via National Geographic HQ to the author of that article, a man called Gordon Young, though I imagine he could be 85 by now.

The second reason for the Arctic is more recent, and in some ways it involves a reassessment of the romantic vision of the Arctic I might have had as a child. A lot of my work at the World Economic Forum was probably not terribly different from the work you do at CNAS, trying to understand the links between energy security and geopolitics, food security and geopolitics, climate and geopolitics – these interlocking issues. And while it’s fascinating sort of to try and look at them abstractly, you’re always looking for an example, an example where you can actually see quite directly how they interact. The Arctic is a perfect place to see how those issues work together, and against one another – with a limited number of players, but tremendous global importance in terms of the environment, energy and geopolitics.

CP: I’m sure you saw the news this week that the U.S. Coast Guard’s only fully working icebreaker, the Polar Star, has engine trouble and will not be functional until early next year. What does this mean for the United States or globally?

CE: Well it’s interesting. For a long time the United States has not cared much, or not appeared to care very much, about its capacity in the Arctic. We’re talking principally Coast Guard capacity rather than military capacity, although of course there’s lots of submarine capacity in the Arctic, as that was of course a major arena for operations during the Cold War. So the U.S. hasn’t seemed to care very much for some time. But there’s been a sort of crescendo for the last couple of years, people saying “Well, Canada’s getting interested, Russia’s getting interested. What’s the U.S. doing?” And the answer to that question has been: not very much.

When I was up in Arctic Alaska back in summer of 2008, the U.S. Coast Guard was making a big push to demonstrate, or attempt to demonstrate, that it could actually do things up in the north. So I would see a Hercules transport plane flying into Deadhorse and there were various operations – maritime, amphibious operations – just off Barrow. My impression – and you’d have to speak to Coast Guard people to get the full story – is that these didn’t go terribly well. That may have been a wakeup call within the Coast Guard that the U.S. doesn’t have very much capacity, even for quite simple civilian operations up in the Arctic – let alone military operations. Admiral Thad Allen has been in front of Congress, in front of the relevant Congressional committee, I think it’s the Transport Subcommittee, making the case for US investment in icebreakers. This is a point made sort of quite consistently by military people and by Coast Guard people and of course by Alaskan politicians.

I think it’s interesting to note the extraordinary disparity between the number of ice breakers that for example Russia has and the U.S. You might say it doesn’t matter very much. The Russian Arctic is much, much bigger than the U.S. Arctic, after all. But there’s a question of intent, as well as a question of capacity here. The Canadians have been talking about upgrading their presence in the Arctic – including with icebreakers – though it’s now unclear how that is really going to happen. And the Chinese have started to get in on the game. Last year the Chinese announced that they would commence construction of their own icebreaker, which would probably be a nuclear icebreaker, and it would probably be one of the most powerful icebreakers in the world.

So, you can see that the U.S. has sort of fallen behind, and has been falling behind for a very long time, in any race to have icebreakers. I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem if the United States may have fewer than Russia, although it may have some credibility issues there. But I think it is a serious problem if there’s a rise in shipping in the Arctic, or indeed if there’s more offshore oil development. Just look at what the Coast Guard is doing in the Gulf of Mexico with regards to the Deepwater Horizon spill there.

So wanting to have more and (more capable) ships and other infrastructure up north is not just an academic exercise. It is also about how practically to deal with a range of possible future events – including an environmental disaster – and it is about demonstrating sovereignty and intent, backing up the diplomatic positions which the United States may take on Arctic issues. Secretary of State Clinton became the first U.S. Secretary of State to attend a Foreign Minister-level Arctic meeting in Canada earlier this year, so I think the diplomatic interest in the Arctic is rising in Washington, and it would be natural for this to be followed with a reassessment of assets required in the north.

CP: You say in the book that climate change is a key factor in the future of the Arctic. Among the Arctic countries you visited, did you find divergent opinions about climate change and its causes or what its future effects would be, or do people of most Arctic countries give or take the United States operate on the same assumptions about what the effects of climate change are going to bring?

CE: Well first of all, there’s certainly an increasing convergence in terms of the idea that climate change is the reality, and that a large part of it is anthropogenic, although there are still a number of Russian scientists – including at the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute in St. Petersburg – who argue that the anthropogenic contribution is generally overstated in the West. The argument put to me there was that what we’re now seeing in the Arctic – and there’s no denying that Arctic warming is real – is a blip, and it may actually be overshadowed by a natural cooling effect over time. This argument was put to me in Russia, but it’s not current elsewhere around the Arctic. So there’s still some divergence in scientists’ views, but not very much and it’s becoming smaller.

But in terms of effects, it really depends on who you talk to. Not so much in terms of whether there are impacts, now, of some warming in the Arctic, but in terms of whether these are a good or a bad thing. There are differences not just between nations, but within them. For example, in northern Greenland, people who survive essentially on hunting and for whom the sea-ice is very important, climate change is clearly a negative. The time they can spend on the ice is reduced, the ecosystem is being altered; and this has impacts for their livelihood (though another problem is that the market for their goods may be shrinking).

Further south, some people think climate change is fantastic because it’s brought the cod fisheries north again, so that they’re actually seeing many, many more fish in the sea.

In Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, they’re even more positive about it because they say “Well, actually, climate change is going to reduce the ice in the seas around Greenland, that’s going to make offshore oil exploration easier, it’s also going to reduce the ice onshore and that will make mineral exploration onshore easier”. Because the country’s population is very small, one big oil development would be effectively Greenland’s meal ticket to independence, which is currently not possible.

And you get a similar divergence in the U.S. between different interests groups and communities.

So I think there’s growing convergence on the facts of climate change. I think there’s also growing convergence on the fact that it has effects, and that some of those are serious. But I think that there are still major differences on whether those are positive or negative, depending on the interests at stake. In the end, of course, the negative impacts of global warming outweigh the potential positive impacts on a global scale, with massive and disruptive impacts in the global south, but opinions in the Arctic are more mixed.

There’s another point worth making here. One reason perhaps why the Russians sort of didn’t seem to mind very much about climate change for a long time is because they had this idea that Russia would be a net gainer from climate change, simply by virtue of, Russia’s tremendous northern territories. That analysis is now beginning to fall apart, and economic interests are beginning to be more worried. Even if there’s less ice in the north and that that might have some benefits in terms of coastal accessibility – and in terms of the dream of a Northern Sea Route linking Russia’s East and West – pipelines in the north and in Siberia tend to be built on permafrost. As that melts, there’s a higher risk of spills, which is bad in itself. There’s a risk that maintenance budgets will have to go up, or that infrastructure will have to be replaced more rapidly. That’s expensive. Additionally, some oil facilities are being built in quite low-lying areas that would be subject to serious problems if there was a rise in sea level and increased storm activity.

So, overall, I think there’s a sort of maturity happening about climate change and its impacts, but I think we’re not even halfway to fully understanding those impacts.

CP: Have any of your thoughts about the Arctic or anything you wrote in your book have changed since you finished writing it? Greenland’s prospects for independence, likelihood of increasing economic activity, etc.

CE: I don’t think too many things have changed really – most of the underlying factors are the same, and the book is really about those underlying factors. It was interesting, of course, that when I was writing the book over the course of 2008 and 2009 the economic crisis really hit, and we’re not really out of that yet. But one of the key changes in terms of the economic context in which I was writing was of course the collapse in the price of oil from $147 in July 2008 to less than a third of that towards the end of that year. One might have thought that that would have completely transformed the prospects for development in the Arctic – and I had to think hard about what that really meant.

But of course the oil price has since come back up to about $70, and I think that the mid-term predictions for the price of oil are that it will remain in the $70-110 range for the foreseeable future. And if it does do that, then actually the economics of a lot of exploration projects and development projects in the Arctic will remain in positive territory in terms of the business case. So, the economic context changed while I was writing, but I came to the conclusion that oil at $147 was a blip – but then so was the collapsed price of oil. At the range we’re settling into now – which is historically very high – a lot of developments still make economic sense. Not all; but many. Arctic gas prospects may be more strongly affected, at least in North America, by shale gas prospects.

What has now really changed with the [Gulf oil] spill is the politics of Arctic oil and gas development but really only in the United States and possibly in Canada. It’s made life much, much harder for oil companies, not just BP but also Shell, which has tremendous investments offshore in the Arctic. It’s demonstrated a quite crucial point about oil and gas development in the Arctic, the U.S. and Canadian Arctic, which is that, at the end of the day, it’s not just about economics. It is subject to political approval – political approval not by people in Alaska or by northern Canada but to political approval in Washington, D.C. It’s about public consent, and the public may just have got a lot more sensitised to arguments surrounding the natural environment, and a lot more critical of the relationship between the industry and government in the past.

But the picture may be rather different if you move to say, Norway, or certainly Russia. In Norway I think it will be a factor in discussions. In fact there were already environmental groups who thought that in fact development there should be slowed. There will be additional measures taken now to ensure safety. I don’t think it will make much difference in Russia, because there the strategic imperatives remain the same, and whatever environmental groups may think about offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic, that will never be as important as the strategic imperative of the state.

And then you’ve got the interesting case of Greenland, where actually just in the last few weeks the drama of the spill in the Gulf of Mexico was just unfolding, the government there actually gave the go-ahead on a couple of licenses by a UK exploration/production company to look for oil offshore.

So one of the big uncertainties has been the oil price, and that’s sort of gone down but come back up and I think we’re now in a quite a range. But another great uncertainty, huge uncertainty, is politics. Politics has come to play an absolutely huge role, not terribly surprisingly in the United States and to some degree in Canada. But public opinion or the environmental lobby is nowhere near as important in Russia, and there are countervailing groups and motivations in other parts of the Arctic, such as Greenland, which means that development is quite likely to continue there.

CP: Did you learn anything about the Arctic that security-minded audiences would be surprised to hear?

CE: I think one of the things that I genuinely found surprising, which I imagine other people would find surprising, is the extent to which the bathymetry of the Arctic is actually even now not terribly well known. Maybe the Defense Department – I’m sure the Defense Department has got an awful lot of material on this. They did have a lot of material on ice thickness of course, which was made public in the 1990s on the initiative of then-Vice President Gore, and helped scientists understand ice thickness and how that had changed.

But the actual mapping of the sea floor is pretty incomplete. You know you look at these beautiful maps, and all the lines join up. And the deeper water is colored one color and the less deep water is colored lighter and it all looks perfect. But the truth is that actually the mapping missions that have gone out there have discovered huge anomalies that they didn’t realize were out there. So I think that’s interesting, and that presents an issue and potentially a danger for submarines but also for surface vessels, both military and non-military.

I think also what was very interesting was the tremendous disparity between military capabilities in the Arctic and awareness of Arctic strategic issues, and I would include the Coast Guard in that. The Russians really have the heavy infrastructure with the icebreakers which the US and Canadians don’t. The Canadians have military operations in the north every summer, but there’s a question of what that really amounts to, or whether it’s bluster – useful for domestic consumption but not much else.

The other thing which I found quite striking initially, although I think this is now changing, is that initially there seemed to be quite a lot of reticence on the Canadian side about cooperation with the United States on Arctic security issues, because the Canadian Arctic was seen so much as a sovereignty issue, where Canada wanted to distinguish itself from its allies, including its most important ally of course, the United States. There seemed to be a reticence about putting some Arctic security issues, with the US, either through NORAD or some other Arctic security organisation, but I think that’s beginning to change.

One final point: in NATO, it’s interesting that the Norwegians in particular (also the Icelanders and the Danes, but particularly the Norwegians) have been pushing Arctic issues whenever they have the opportunity onto the agenda of the North Atlantic Council. They’ve also tried to inject this into the process of rewriting NATO’s strategic doctrine this year. And the real importance of that is that in the way that NATO works, states have areas of responsibility and then there are shared responsibilities when it comes to territorial defense. The point which the Norwegians are making is, we’re having to invest a huge amount more in the territorial defense of the Arctic, which wasn’t considered very important over the last 20 years, but now we’re going to have to invest in more equipment for surveillance etc. They’ve moved their military headquarters up to the north, they’ve more ice-class frigates, and they want more burden-sharing.

So I think we haven’t yet found the appropriate structure for burden-sharing within the NATO military alliance for the Arctic, but also between the U.S. and Canada.

In the end, it’s important to realise that the Arctic is not just an empty waste. I think it’s an area of tremendous future strategic importance. It is an area of tremendous economic-strategic interest, particularly for the Russians. And it’s an area in which a lot of states, including non-Arctic states such as China, are becoming increasingly interested. To my mind, that means that policy makers really ought to be very interested in this and they ought to be figuring out what’s the appropriate way forward. What organizations should be a part of it? What organizations should we be pushing? How can we secure this area? I think there’s a lot of work to be done, and that’s going to increase over time.

I think that the problem for policy makers is, on one level, the interest in the Arctic is unbelievably high-level. It’s about grand notions of geopolitics and it’s potentially quite a long way out in the future, some of the issues. But what people are actually hearing about the Arctic is tremendously local, it’s about settlements in Alaska having to be shifted a few hundred miles because of coastal erosion. It’s just very hard for policy makers and for people in general to put those two things together: what seems to be super macro, and what they’re hearing, which seems really quite micro. I think that’s a real intellectual challenge for policy makers in this area, and not just in the Arctic – I think that it’s relevant for a lot of quite different areas in the way that people are thinking about climate change and security.